Growing up on the Eastern Shore, my middle school classmates and I went to the chicken plant in Salisbury.

It’s still there on Route 50, at the Wicomico River.

Flatbed trailers were stacked high with crates pulled into the loading docks, the birds inside stunned into stillness by their open-air ride from some long, low chicken house where they’d spent their whole 59-day lives.

There was lots more to see inside, but one thing has stuck with me many years later — the blood-spattered abattoir at the center of the plant where the chickens were killed, bled, cleaned and dressed.

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I’m sharing this gruesome childhood memory to make a point. That field trip on a yellow bus taught me that chicken — any meat, for that matter — does not spring into existence wrapped in plastic for your consumption. Humans eat, whether the entrée is animal or vegetable, and there are consequences.

One of them is stinking up parts of Maryland right now — smelly leftovers in the form of industrial sludge, some of it trucked across state lines to be stored in pits until it can be spread as fertilizer on farm fields.

“They started filling that damn thing in March of last year and it’s been a constant odor,” Michael Woodward told the Caroline County Commission in December as it considered a ban on the practice. “It’s hard to do anything outside. I get sick to my stomach.”

Two state lawmakers have proposed legislation to close loopholes that environmentalists, farmers and others say allow transport and storage of this muck — encouraging companies in other states to treat Maryland as a dumping ground.

“As we understand it, a small number of farmers are overusing this. But that small number has a huge impact on the bay,” said Del. Sara Love, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the measure in the House of Delegates. “With respect to the transport and the storage, Maryland doesn’t have any regulations on this. So we’re getting this sludge from Virginia and Delaware.”

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The proposal is the latest in a long line of efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay food chain. Maryland regulates how farmers spread fertilizer on their fields and clean up after their flocks. It is supposed to keep plants that produce the food that we and our pets eat from polluting the waterways.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis spends millions on helping dairy farmers and processing companies upstream in Pennsylvania manage their cow manure so that it doesn’t flow down the Susquehanna River into the bay.

Yet because producing food is a sprawling complex enterprise, there are still problems — including the sludge left over from a process called Dissolved Air Flotation, or DAF.

Maryland produces 596 million chickens a year, generating $5 billion for the state economy, according to the Delmarva Chicken Association. After those chickens are processed for restaurants and grocery stores or for animal food and fertilizer, the waste is a final goo made up of things like beaks, gristle and blood.

DAF uses pressurized microbubbles to separate those solids from the liquids — fats, oils and grease. Yet even that fluid has value as fertilizer for grain, which is fed to chickens, which head to the abattoir — generating more residue.

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“Every time I speak about these types of products, it’s kind of like the circle,” said Hans Schmidt, assistant secretary of resource conservation at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “I don’t want to say the circle of life but … ”

Cue the Disney chorus, right? Maybe not.

Maryland tries to keep a handle on all this. Too much fertilizer and the excess runs into the bay — promoting the growth of algae, which sucks up oxygen and crowds out underwater grasses that serve as food and habitat for a range of species. It feeds bacteria that can cause diseases.

A 2023 University of Maryland report on agricultural animal waste found that the 37 million gallons of DAF products being produced, stored or spread on farms statewide is a concern.

Some of this liquid comes from the state’s only rendering plant, which was operated by Valley Proteins, in Dorchester County. Acquired by Darling Ingredients in 2022, the plant takes in millions of pounds of chicken guts daily and turns them into pet food.

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It has a troubled history. In 2022, the state approved plans to expand the plant just months after the then-owner paid fines to settle a lawsuit claiming that it illegally dumped DAF residue into bay tributaries. Workers have complained about safety concerns. There was a major fire in August.

If that weren’t enough, Maryland is also the largest importer of this sludge in the region, with companies such as Arkansas-based Denali Water Solutions trucking it in from states that regulate it more tightly.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation considers controlling DAF residue among its top legislative priorities for this General Assembly session. It traces ultimate responsibility to the three big processing companies, Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods and Mountaire Farms.

“Most of the carcasses from the processing that each of those companies do is arriving at this one rendering plant, which is privately owned and operated by Darling Ingredients,” said Alan Girard, the foundation’s Eastern Shore director. “But functionally, they’re connected.”

Although Girard said Maryland can tighten up the internal stream of DAF residue with existing rules, there’s no way to solve the out-of-state flow without a new permitting program.

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Wherever the liquid leftovers come from, they can be spread on fields as fertilizer as part of an approved plan. But they don’t contain much nutrient value and often aren’t tested frequently. Farmers can slather lots of it around and still stay within their nutrient plans, even if it stinks.

“This stuff could be applied pretty thickly,” said state Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican who sponsored legislation on DAF residue in the Senate.

Some of it is being stored in large pits, such as those at the Dorchester County rendering plant. More is finding its way into farm pits — sometimes unused manure pits from shuttered dairy operations.

Whether it’s spread on fields or stored in open pits, the people who live nearby say the smell is horrendous, long-lasting and worsened by flies attracted by the residue.

“It’s the only time the farmers have called the riverkeeper out of concern,” Choptank riverkeeper Matt Pluta told the Caroline County Commission at its December hearing. “This is an industrial product, and we can’t forget that.”

Caroline County, with a population smaller than the city of Annapolis, butts right up against the Delaware state line. The Caroline County Commission, concerned about more residue coming across, passed a moratorium on new storage facilities in December and extended it in late January.

Holly Porter, executive director of the Delmarva Chicken Association, said chicken growers support the intent of the legislation, if not all the details.

“I apologize that this appears to be a bad actor, but that appears to be what we have,” she told the commission.

As drafted, the legislation would assign regulation to the Maryland Department of the Environment, requiring more testing and setting up storage and transport permits. The Department of Agriculture wants the job because it already works with farmers on the use of animal waste fertilizers.

Despite the complaints, however, the assistant state agriculture secretary said Maryland probably shouldn’t take on the role of overseeing storage and transport.

“I think from the state’s perspective, it’s much better at the county level that they have oversight on where these types of facilities go,” Schmidt said.

A Denali company spokesperson called the residue a safe benefit for farmers used for decades, adding that all shipments are tested and, he claimed, authorized by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The company wants changes to the bill, although the spokesperson didn’t say what.

“We support common-sense regulations that strengthen Maryland’s farmers and food manufacturers while protecting the environment,” Samuel Liebl, Denali’s director of communications, said in an email.

So, is there a bad actor here?

We all are to blame, of course, because we eat chicken and don’t think much about where it comes from.

The farmers getting paid to store and spread this stuff are too, because they know it makes life miserable for their neighbors. The poultry industry is because it should be more responsible for how its waste is handled, as is Denali because it is taking advantage of lax oversight on this side of state line.

And the state of Maryland is. While both agencies seem to support additional regulation, it has taken a change of administration to get their reluctant attention.

My kids didn’t tour a poultry plant growing up. Instead, they spent time on Fox Island. It was an island educational retreat in the bay run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. They sold it in 2019, and it recently burned down.

I don’t think school kids on the Eastern Shore today take that factory trip, either.

Yet John Hurley, a Ridgely town commissioner, told his county leaders kids will understand the impact of poultry unless the state steps in and keeps sludge storage and application from expanding near his small town’s schools.

“There is no way the kids will be able to learn and play outside because of that smell.”